I suppose when you come across a writer so engulfed in snark, so above the tide, so cutting edge that it is almost impossible to touch their well thought out and clearly obvious humor that you find yourself paused, unable to dissect with the surgical precision of cutting analysis you have come to expect of Feministing. I mean, you should at least be able to stop and acknowledge that the author was kind of intelligent, had a strong point of view or made you LOL.
I really think Joel Stein was hoping he would get that kind of reaction about his column in this week’s TIME about his painful realization that his town was overrun by “Indians,” a deeply sad look into his psyche, almost reminiscent of the Michael Richard’s moment, only Stein was writing…so you would think he had more time to do just that. There are few things sadder than reading a writer that is so caught up in their own ego, racism and bad writing that they don’t even have the foresight to see how poorly their piece has not only come across, but would be received. Why did Time chose to run this?
So what has got me up at 830am writing all kinds of mean things about some writer I don’t even read? Let’s take a look at Stein’s meditation on life in Edison, NJ.
For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.
Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians “dot heads.” One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to “go home to India.” In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.
Unlike some of my friends in the 1980s, I liked a lot of things about the way my town changed: far better restaurants, friends dorky enough to play Dungeons & Dragons with me, restaurant owners who didn’t card us because all white people look old. But sometime after I left, the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.
I don’t even have to be South Asian to be offended by this, but let’s just say, being South Asian adds a little extra bit of annoyance for me since “dothead” was definitely the most benign of the racial slurs I have been called. As a growing population that has been consistently made fun of by mainstream media, policed both before and more so after 9/11, ignored, strategically propped up as a model minority and a community that provides so much of the labor, both working class and white collar, at statistically lower income rates than the average American, you would think Stein could do us a solid by noting some of that. As opposed to suggesting that the main malaise of the growing South Asian population in the United States as a series of cultural disruptions, annoyances, badly thought out racial slurs and smelly food. All of which interrupted his ability to claim his white authentic identity as it ties into his hometown.
How about this for a meditation on the “OMG so funneh” of growing up in the US? Growing up South Asian in the United States around a bunch of racists was a really challenging experience for me and my South Asian friends and family. We were constantly compared to the ethnic minorities around us, ignored in the classroom except for the offhand comment about how we were inherently smart and good at school (unless you weren’t, then it was in the special class with all the other minorities for you!) and we could never live down being a nerd, unless we assimilated so hardcore that the only thing that was left “authentically Indian” about us was our hair.
So while Stein is pissed that when he goes home to Edison (from his Cheslea home that is surrounded by “transvestite hookers”–see he is just pure vile), and tries to give a snarky commentary about a rather phenomenal situation, he makes it all about himself, totally alienating several generations of immigrants that have worked to build not only their own communities, but the very bedrock of US society. And that is just not that funny.
What is most telling in this piece outside of Stein’s outstanding inability to tell good jokes is that the South Asian community is having an identity crisis in the mainstream media (just think back to the How to Date an Indian fiasco). South Asians are a growing minority and have finally made it into the national spotlight in the last 10 years, but because there is so little written about us before, we have always been whatever someone else wants us to be in that moment. As a result, there is no “best practice” in talking about South Asians and it is OK to say horrendously offensive and uncomplicated stories about us with little to no accountability. We haven’t made the news media with any other breaking news that actually deals with the reality of our lives in the United States, so we are not taken seriously and we are considered “harmless,” (unless in an airport, then duck and cover fam). Desis have thus far been the butt of jokes or a cultural oasis of things to point at and gush or a target for racism both institutional and in foul attempts at comedy.
Let’s stop that right now. Email the editors at TIME and let them know this type of writing is totally unacceptable for a magazine that is patronized by South Asians and considered an industry standard for weekly news. Plus, my dad has been reading TIME since 1970, I think they owe him an apology!